Herminia Ibarra


Brendan Walsh evaluates ideas in Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader, the latest book by Herminia Ibarra, the thinker and business guru, who argues that redefining your job and building strong external networks can take your career to the next level

Every so often, a new business title is published which seems to rewrite the rules in such a way that it renders much of your existing library redundant. This is what Herminia Ibarra has done with Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader, a book based on her flagship executive education programme at Insead. Ibarra is an expert on professional leadership and development and a renowned professor, she also has roles with the World Economic Forum and Harvard Business School and is ranked ninth in the Thinkers 50 list of the most influential business gurus in the world.

In Act Like a Leader…, she claims that instead of introspection and reflection, managers can step up to leadership by acting now and thinking later. Roles are no longer static so being future-focused has never been more important. Looking inwards means looking backwards, so in order to be a successful leader, Ibarra argues that we need to engage with things that are happening around us. She calls this “outsight” and claims we need to redefine our jobs, networks and identities based on this new way of thinking.

Competency trap

As we progress to leadership, the path to success becomes unmarked. This breeds uncertainty and so, more often than not, we stick to what we know. We work on the things we excel at and remain weak in other areas. And, as we develop, it feels increasingly costly to invest time and energy in learning new things. This is what Ibarra calls a “competency trap”.

Instead, leaders must begin to act outside established structures and responsibilities to take the role of a ‘bridge’ – to gain inspiration by being a link to the outside world. It is only with this external perspective that we are able to communicate the vital vision – the ‘why’ – behind decision-making.

In practical terms, this outsight can be achieved by finding new projects outside our usual remit, improving diversity within teams and making more time for unplanned activities.

A vital part of the transition to leadership comes from cultivating relationships outside the organisation. This approach to networking requires work and can’t be left to chance.

As humans, we naturally keep company based on proximity and similarity – or what Ibarra calls lazy, narcissistic networking. Instead, she argues, we should refresh our networks by looking at the balance of relationships which are operational, personal and strategic, and assess a network’s dynamism – how active it is and how often we introduce “fresh blood”.

Ibarra warns against a network that is too dense. If it includes too many people who know each other, it can create an echo chamber for similar ideas. Equally, it shouldn’t be too sparse, which can lead to a lack of visibility. Above all else, we need to nurture and maintain networks, otherwise they will become stagnant and fail to offer vital new perspectives.

Identity play

Ibarra believes that we have become too concerned with the idea of an “authentic” self – and the concept that in our increasingly transparent world the most important thing we can do is to be true to ourselves. She challenges this notion – referring to authenticity as an “anchor”.She claims the situations in which we learn the most are those that challenge our sense of self and so asks us to experiment and play around with our identities – to learn by doing.

Her recommendations remove safety and put us outside our comfort zone but this is vital as we evolve and grow as leaders. And as we transition into leadership roles, we can often feel like a fake – like an actor playing a role that we have not studied for, but Ibarra maintains that this experience is not only valuable but is also short-lived and before long, we will be the leader we want to be.

What is your favourite business bible? Email Brendan Walsh here

Brendan Walsh is Executive Vice President, American Express Global Corporate Payments, International

Books_Herminia 1_April 15Fact file

Published January 2015 (Harvard Business Review Press, £19.99)

Reviews Financial TImes: “Ibarra’s suggestions are far more useful than the glib formulas many books offer as a firm prescription.”

Washington Post: “Ibarra’s book focuses on finding ways to build your own leadership tool kit.”

Did you know? Cuban-born Ibarra is vice-chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Women’s Empowerment. In her 2003 book, Working Identity, she wrote: “By far the biggest mistake people make when trying to change careers is to delay taking the first step until they have settled on
a destination.”

Do it now
Make a concerted effort to not only attend more events that will help you broaden your network, but to play an active role within them. Seek out speaking opportunities, ask questions and get noticed. The value you will extract from taking a more active role will be far greater than if you remain silent.


About author

Brendan Walsh

Brendan Walsh

Brendan Walsh is Executive Vice President of American Express Global Corporate Payments, Europe, and Chair of American Express's European Governance Board.

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